Sunday, March 22, 2015

Chesterton debate: Full video

Last month I participated in the Chesterton debate. I have previously published my opening remarks (15 minutes) and my responses to Dr. Benson's three questions (five minutes each).

Below is the entire debate, including my questions to Dr. Benson, questions from the audience, and a discussion guided by the moderator, Lorna Dueck.

I've only watched a few minutes so far, and can say that the picture quality is excellent.

I hope you enjoy.


Friday, March 20, 2015

Chesterton Debate: Question three and my answer

Dr. Benson asked a third and final question of me based on my opening remarks in the Chesterton debate. His question is indented below; my answer follows.

Chief Justice Brian Dickson in Big M Drug Mart stated that religious freedom is prototypical - meaning it has led the way to other rights such as freedom of speech, assembly etc..  It would seem then that once we have religious freedom of all including freedom of politicians to live in accordance with his/her religious principles, we have a greater chance of protecting all the other freedoms.  This being the case, as well as the strong evidence (referred to in my opening comments) about various public goods (such as charitable works, volunteerism etc.) being strongly correlated with religious adherence, do you not agree that religion needs to be protected from moves to narrow its public as well as private influences?
Paragraph 123 in Big M:
Religious belief and practice are historically prototypical and, in many ways, paradigmatic of conscientiously‑held beliefs and manifestations and are therefore protected by the Charter . Equally protected, and for the same reasons, are expressions and manifestations of religious non‑belief and refusals to participate in religious practice.
It is my view that freedom of religion and its more general right, freedom of conscience, are essential for a democratic country, as well as the closely related principle of freedom of expression. So in that sense, yes – religion deserves protection. But I do not think that it needs additional, special privileges above and beyond those accorded to all voluntary associations within society. Protecting the freedoms of expression and conscience are sufficient to guarantee religious liberty.

Consider this: religious liberty itself is constrained in countries where citizens do not enjoy full freedom of conscience and expression. The Economist reported in December that 19 countries punish their citizens for apostasy - leaving their religion - and in 12 of those nations it is punishable by death.

55 countries (including several Western democracies) have laws against blasphemy; a conviction could lead to a prison term in 39 nations and execution in six. Blasphemy laws have been abused almost everywhere they are enacted, frequently to suppress religious minorities, persecute political rivals, minority sects, or stifle inconvenient speech. It is important to realize that Canada is not exempt; we too have a blasphemy law, which was last used to censor a Monty Python film, in a failed attempt to prevent its distribution in Canada. I've never understood the rationale for blasphemy laws; surely those who believe in an omnipotent God know He does not need the support of a human law, while those who do not believe in God view blasphemy as the ultimate victimless crime.

Mr. Benson claimed in his opening remarks that "secular is a sort of exclusionary violence to freedom and rights". Yet it is precisely the devout, particularly those who belong to minority faiths, would should be the most committed secularists. The principle of secularism - government neutrality between and among faiths - is the best protection for religious minorities that are persecuted in far too many places in the world. Anyone genuinely concerned about religious liberty, and freedom of conscience, must oppose tonight's resolution, for a secular state is the only one that guarantees full freedom of religious worship and expression. A secular state is not concerned with purported acts heresy or apostasy. No one need smuggle a bible into a secular country; a secular nation has no pogroms.

And let us not forget that those that adhere to no religious tradition are equally deserving of protection - and are often specially targeted for persecution. Even in the United States, with its official separation of Church and State, politics is so infused with religion that atheists are banned from holding public office by the constitution of seven US states. Contrary to Mr. Benson's insinuations, it is not the secular minded folk who lack tolerance.

Regarding religious adherence and various public goods, Professor of sociology Phil Zuckerman asks an intriguing question: "Is a society to be considered moral if its citizens love the Bible a lot (as in the United States), or rather, if its citizens virtually wipe out poverty from their midst (as in Scandinavia)?"

More generally, however, there are very good reasons for keeping God out of politics. As lawyer and philosopher Ron Lindsay put it, "We can't base our laws based on the word of God in part because we don't know what God is saying. The Jewish and Islamic god says you can't eat pork; the Christian god says that's okay. The Islamic god says Friday is a holy day, the Jewish god says Saturday, the Christian god says Sunday. The list of disagreements can go on and on and on. As soon as you introduce religious precepts into a public policy discussion, you are essentially shutting out of that discussion anyone who is not a follower of that religion."

Let us ground our politics in evidence and values accessible to all members of society. We can best protect freedom of religion by keeping it as far from politics as we possibly can.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Chesterton debate: Question two and my answer


The indented text below is Dr. Benson's second question to me based on the text of my opening remarks in the Chesterton debate. My response follows.
As did mid 19th Century secularists you seem to suggest that "evidence based public policy" favours the non-religious viewpoints.   Many things that matter to us in life and government policy are not, however,  susceptible to "evidence" assessments free of moral commitments.   Moral debates about such issues as euthanasia, gender-selection abortion or certain kinds of tax policies are not resolved by "evidence" cut off from competing interests and beliefs.   In short: we choose how to weigh evidence against a moral background based on our beliefs.   Your approach gives atheists and agnostics the ability to have their beliefs effective in relation to moral public policy formation but not religious people's: how can that be fair?

Embedded in this question is a false assumption - that I am proposing we exclude the ability of religious politicians to use their moral judgement. I have never advocated for such a position, nor has any prominent secularist organization. However, all politicians, religious and non-religious alike, have a responsibility to express their goals and concerns in universal values, rather than in the terms of their particular creed. This allows all people, of all backgrounds, of all faiths (including those having none) - to fully participate in the political arena. Mr. Benson asks: How can that be fair? I respond: What could be more fair?

Mr. Benson is correct that I favour evidence based public policy. We both hold the view that while evidence must inform public policy, it cannot dictate it. One key role of elected officials is to determine the extent to which competing interests benefit from a proposed law or policy. There are often trade offs that lie at the heart of a politician's job - such as whether to raise or lower taxes (and which ones), increase or decrease spending (and where), run a surplus or deficit - all in an infinite number of possible combinations. We should use knowledge to foresee, as best we can, the consequences of various options, but ultimately a decision will be made due to priorities that come from a philosophical or moral foundation that is not based on evidence alone.

Religious groups are allowed to have their say in the public square, even if they give explicitly religious rationales for their positions. By the same token, however, politicians and judges are under no obligation to accept arguments whose only justification is religious in nature.

While same sex marriage was being considered in Canada  a decade ago, religious voices were a significant part of the discussion and religious groups were very active in the debate. Canada's legislature, its courts, and society overall did not end up agreeing with the religious perspective – but all interested parties were able to express their moral beliefs about the topic.

More recently, in October, an interesting case was heard by the Supreme Court of Canada about whether it is legal for a municipality in Quebec to start its meetings with a prayer. The Court has yet to render its verdict.

In addition to the plaintiff and the defendant, there were several interveners that presented before the Supreme Court: the Canadian Secular Alliance, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, the Catholic Civil Rights League, the Faith and Freedom Alliance, and the Association of Catholic Parents of Qu├ębec. It is simply not the case that "religious beliefs are not permitted in the public sphere." Religious voices are being heard, even if their arguments are sometimes rejected. Religious organizations engage all levels of government, through direct lobbying, raising money, taking out advertisements, voting with their feet, just like any other group. This cannot be accurately described as discrimination.

Mr. Benson: I am here tonight because I am intensely concerned about fairness. To ensure justice and equal participation from all members of society, we need only apply the criteria that you yourself laid out just a few minutes ago - that we judge arguments based on their fairness, reasonableness, and general applicability. If we combine that with the ideas from my opening address - that public policy be based on the principles of human experience, objective evidence, reason, human empathy and compassion - then we have a way to determine which laws, actions, and policies are in the common interest, whether one's altruism is motivated by religious faith or whether the inspiration to public service stems from a humanist philosophy. This is democratic. This is just. This is fair.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Chesterton Debate: Question one and my answer

The format of the Chesterton debate allowed Dr. Benson and I to read each other's opening statements in advance of the event and to submit three questions based on them. Below is Dr. Benson's first question to me (indented), and my response. 
You say you are opposed to theocracy because it forces religious viewpoints on a diverse society and we don't disagree about this.  However, you  don't address the existence of what Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain once described as "atheistic theocracy".  Your view, which would exclude religious influences but not non-religious influences in the public sphere, thereby privileges atheism and agnosticism in direct contradiction to the Supreme Court of Canada's decision in Chamberlain (2002) If all citizens are to be treated equally, how would you guard against "atheistic theocracy" if you don't allow religious beliefs in the public sphere?
This question, interpreted literally, contradicts itself. The definition of theocracy is "A government ruled by or subject to religious authority." One cannot be both an atheist - one who looks at the thousands of gods humanity has worshipped over its history, and does not believe any of them actually exist - and be ruled by religious doctrine. A direct answer to a contradictory question cannot exist.

Therefore I hope you will indulge me if I take a figurative approach to Mr. Benson's words, and address instead what I think is the intended spirit of his question. His concern is about a state dogmatically and inflexibly ruled by an unbelieving autocrat, who also demands strict adherence from all public figures to an anti-theistic ideology. Mr. Benson is worried about the possibility of an atheistic dictatorship.

However, tonight we are not talking about atheism. This was last year's debate topic. We are discussing secularism - and the two are quite distinct concepts. Equal treatment among all citizens means privileging neither religious nor anti-religious voices. Supporting government neutrality in matters of religion, where the government neither supports nor suppresses religious expression,  is the secularist stance. Secularists stand against government coercing people to abandon their religion as much as government enforcing religious dictates upon those who believe differently, or not at all.

Secularism does not privilege atheism or agnosticism. Secularism is the compromise position. Which Mr. Benson holds as well, since he has stated that he does not wish to force his (or anyone else's) religious viewpoints on society at large.

Let's examine the status quo in Canada, posit the secular stance, and imagine, for a moment, what a dystopian atheistic dictatorship would look like:

Today God is mentioned in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and in our national anthem. A secular state would not mention God in either. An atheistic dictatorship would use both to promulgate the State's position that there is no God.

Today many legislatures and municipal councils in Canada start their official proceedings with the Lord's prayer, a Christian invocation, a generic theistic supplication, or with rotating orations from various faiths. A secular state would have elected officials spend their time doing their job, what they are paid to do - tending to the earthly interests of society. An atheistic dictatorship would have these governmental bodies start their proceedings with an explicit affirmation that God is an imaginary entity.

Today organizations whose only purpose and activity is to advance religious beliefs enjoy tax credits and subsidies of over one BILLION dollars per year. A secular state would grant no financial privileges to organizations promoting or discouraging faith. Charitable status would be granted to whichever groups perform charitable deeds, such as feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. An atheistic dictatorship would grant charitable status and other financial privileges to organizations whose only purpose is to denigrate religious belief.

Today exemptions are granted from generally applicable laws on the basis of religious beliefs, but are denied to those who object on other grounds. Examples include working on the Sabbath or other religious holidays; nurses handling I.V. bags; and students carrying weapons in schools. A secular state would either a) grant no such exemptions, or b) permit them for all deeply held philosophical commitments, whether their source was from religion, culture, or personal conscience. An atheistic dictatorship would grant exceptions only for those who ground their objections in their atheism.

Canada is a nation of considerable religious privilege. Secularists argue for government neutrality in matters of religion. Should an atheistic dictatorship arise, Mr. Benson can depend on me and all secularist organizations to fight against these hypothetical discriminatory policies. For now, our efforts are dedicated to combating the very real injustices that exist today.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Chesterton Debate: My opening remarks


On Friday evening, I debated Dr. Iain Benson on whether "one’s religious convictions should play a significant role in how they conduct themselves in political affairs."

I took the negative side of the resolution, and below is my fifteen minute opening address to make the case for government neutrality in matters of religion.


There is a scene in the 1971 film "Fiddler on the Roof" where the rabbi of a poor, oppressed Jewish village in pre-revolutionary Russia is asked to say few words about the Tsar. He responds, "A blessing for the Tsar? Of course! May God bless and keep the Tsar... far away from us!"

It is natural and appropriate for believers to have freedom OF religion, and it is equally right and just that others should have freedom FROM it. In this way, individuals are free to conduct themselves according to their personal or shared religious (or not) viewpoint.

But tonight's debate is not about private behaviour. This evening we are discussing political affairs: Using the power and influence of one's public position to pressure others to conform to your creed's mores, co-opting governmental institutions to serve sectarian ends, or legislating on the basis of religion. These activities should be rejected.

On the other hand, it would be foolish to suggest that a public avowal of a particular faith would disqualify an individual from an elected or appointed role in public office. I propose that devout Catholics and ardent atheists are both welcome to fully participate in public and political life. On their own time, those with religious convictions can attend the church, synagogue, temple, or mosque of their choice while serving any function in government or politics.

I further propose that Catholics should not be forced to abide by the strictures of (say) Hinduism, and vice-versa. Both should be free to follow their respective faiths. I, as an adherent of neither, would object to being coerced into submitting to the dictates of either. In addition, religious groups generally desire minimal interference from governments in doctrinal affairs. Clearly, then, all of us have a personal interest in opposing tonight's resolution. For once one religion can impose its tenets upon the populace, there is little to stop other faiths from doing the same if they gain political power at a later date. Let us keep any religion - and therefore all religions - at a safe distance from our political institutions.

The Supreme Court of Canada agrees. In 2004, it wrote: "As a general rule, the state refrains from acting in matters relating to religion. It is limited to setting up a social and legal framework in which [...] members of the various denominations are able to associate freely in order to exercise their freedom of worship."

This is a common theme in Canadian jurisprudence. Eight years later, it also wrote: "State neutrality is assured when the state neither favours nor hinders any particular religious belief, that is, when it shows respect for all postures towards religion, including that of having no religious beliefs whatsoever."

I endorse this sentiment, and I think many of you agree with it as well. I hope I can convince the rest of you that this principle is the best means to secure liberty and human flourishing. If I succeed, everyone here tonight should agree that one’s religious convictions should *not* play a significant role in how they conduct themselves in political affairs.

This does not mean we should dismiss any action on the basis that it might be motivated by religious faith. As Barack Obama put it: "We are under obligation in public life to translate our religious values into moral terms that all people can share, including those who are not believers."

On the thousands of issues that politicians must negotiate, the world's major religions are often silent, contradictory, or ambiguous. One's religion should not play a significant role in political affairs because, for the vast majority of political decisions, there is no clear religious course of action. And in those cases where sacred scrolls do detail specific punishments for particular misdeeds, we in Canada often cheerfully disregard them - and this is as it should be. I am confident no one supports the Biblical injunction that would force a woman to marry her rapist. [Deuteronomy 22:28-29] While many here may disapprove of adultery, none present would advocate killing those who cheat on their spouses, as the Bible commands. [Leviticus 20:10]

In other areas, religious and materialist philosophies each incorporate such disparate perspectives that neither can claim to own a side of an issue. Look at climate change. Some religious folk believe God has a plan for humanity and would never allow us to go extinct, so we may as well strip mine the earth. Others with a religious bent see themselves as stewards of Creation and therefore feel a moral obligation to protect the environment. Conversely, those with an entirely materialist viewpoint may believe their financial self-interest lies with the continued development of Canada's tar sands and so vehemently argue against global warming. And many non-religious people view rising sea levels as an existential threat to several island nations, and are therefore impelled to advocate for a strong global carbon emissions cap. One's politics cannot be determined by one's faith, or its absence.

The same can be said of morality. I often hear that religion and ethics are one and the same - indeed, that the source of all morals is religion, or that an ethical life is impossible without the values spelled out in some holy text. Though commonly repeated, it is easy to see this is not the case.

It is undeniable that many deeply religious people commit abominable acts such as covering up child abuse or detonating suicide bombs in public areas.

It is also true, as most of you likely know through personal experience, that most non-believers lead decent lives. I find it interesting that statistically, atheists are significantly under-represented in prisons throughout North America.

The point is one's morality says nothing about the extent of their belief, and one's piety implies nothing about their basic human decency.

And though many with deeply held religious convictions are highly moral, the same cannot always be said of religious institutions. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, was sharply critical. On racial segregation and discrimination, the most prominent and important social issue of the time, he wrote: "In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church."

Perhaps the declining political influence of religious institutions is not a bad thing. University of London professor Stephen Law observed, “if declining levels of religiosity were the main cause of…social ills, we should expect those countries that are now the least religious to have the greatest problems. The reverse is true.” According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, those states in the US with the best quality of life are among the least publicly pious (such as Vermont and New Hampshire). This generalizes globally. Democratic nations where religion plays little role in political affairs, such as Sweden, Norway, Japan, Australia, and the Netherlands, fare much better on just about every sociological indicator of well-being.

All individuals, including those who are active in political affairs, have the right to make their own choices, but not to demand that others do likewise. If you think homosexuality is wrong, don't have intercourse with someone of the same sex. But criminalizing gay relationships or opposing equal marriage is an affront to equality, justice, morality, and human rights. Enforcing one's own religious strictures upon others breeds societal ills.

That is why a politician should set aside religious dictates when acting as a representative of the government to shape public policy.

As a thought experiment, let's examine the consequences if religious beliefs truly dictated the laws of the land.  

A parliament legislating according Catholic doctrine, for example, would ban the sale of condoms to men and the prescriptions for the pill for women. If orthodox Jews were in power, they would outlaw the consumption of all pork and shellfish. Jehovah's Witnesses would make life-saving blood transfusions illegal. A Hindu regime would outlaw eating beef, while a government legislating according to Muslim morality would criminalize the consumption of alcohol. Most of these would forbid working on the Sabbath, though there is some disagreement between them on when the Sabbath starts, and indeed on which day of the week it falls.
Can anyone genuinely argue that life would be better with no birth control, no steak, no lobster, arbitrary restrictions on life-saving medical procedures, a return to the days of Prohibition, or no bacon? (Please, let us at least keep bacon.)

But one need not resort to hypothetical situations. Where religion and politics meet, tragedy and injustice often follow.

In Ireland in October 2012, Savita Halappanavar was pregnant and gravely ill with a serious infection. Doctors refused her request for a medically justified abortion because of a religiously motivated law that forbade removing even a miscarried foetus, no matter the risk to the mother's life. As a result, both mother and foetus died. This egregious violation of a woman's basic human rights, and other recent examples, are the direct result of religion's influence in politics.

In a secular democracy no Church can dictate legal, social, or educational policy - and in return government does seek to control the practice of religion, so long as those practices do not interfere with the rights of others. As my father often said, "My right to swing my fist stops at the bridge of your nose."

The principle of equality is evident when there is one law for all. Injustice inevitably follows when the laws of the land are subject to a theological veto, or when they apply one set of rules to the religious (or to those of a particular sect), and another for everyone else.

Mohandas Gandhi rejected the principle of tonight's resolution. He said, "If I were a dictator, religion and state would be separate. I swear by my religion. I will die for it. But it is my personal affair. The state has nothing to do with it. The state would look after your secular welfare, health, communications, foreign relations, currency and so on, but not your or my religion. That is everybody's personal concern."

To maximize freedom for all, let us not inject politics into religion. Who here tonight wants the government to be ever more involved with the Church? Does anyone want legislators or judges, whose expertise typically resides outside of ecclesiastical matters, to be the final arbiter on difficult religious and theological questions? I certainly do not. Do you?

To maximize freedom for all, let us not inject religion into politics. Because most of us have chosen at some point to use condoms or go on the pill; because chances are someone you know is better off because they obtained a divorce from an abusive spouse and are now happily remarried; because there are those who have access to medical benefits from their same-sex partners; because Professor Benson and I are able to publicly debate the role of religion in the political realm with neither of us fearing any social or legal reprisals; for all these reasons, let us all breathe a sigh of relief we do not live in a country run on the basis of religious dogma, where any of these might not be possible or could lead to incarceration. Instead, let us be thankful that our laws and government are largely based on secular principles of human experience, objective evidence, reason, and human empathy and compassion.

Therefore join with me this evening. Maximize everyone's freedom and social well being - Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Wiccan, and non-religious citizens alike. Advocate for our collective human interest instead of for narrow sectarian preferences. Ensure responsible government and demand evidence-based public policy.

Finally, there is a word to describe when religion dominates politics: theocracy. I would like to give the last word to Professor Benson. From his 2013 article: "Theocracy seems to corrupt religious proposition by using the instruments of coercion that are essential to law in service of religions." I agree wholeheartedly - and therefore urge you, as well, to prevent the corruption of religious faith by rejecting the proposition that one's religious convictions should play a significant role in how they conduct themselves in political affairs.

Thank you.

Friday, February 20, 2015

One week to my debate on secularism

Tickets are still available for my debate on Friday, February 27 on whether "One's religious beliefs should play a significant role in political affairs."

I am in the final stages of preparation and think it will be an interesting debate. As it is being organized by the Archdiocese of Toronto, it is likely that a significant majority of the audience will be Catholic, and have a predisposition to favour the arguments of my opponent, Iain Benson (a Catholic scholar).

It is my hope to persuade many of these people that it is in their interest to support government neutrality in matters of religion - that is, the secular stance.

I hope you will be able to join me.





Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Save the date: I debate "God's Politics" in Toronto on February 27, 2015

I will be participating in the second annual Chesterton Debate Series, organized by the Archdiocese of Toronto, in February. 

The formal resolution is, "One's religious convictions should play a significant role in political affairs." I will be arguing passionately (and, I hope, convincingly) that they should not.

You can register today, or buy tickets starting on January 23. I hope many of you will be able to join me in Toronto on February 27.